A Guide to Carbo-Loading


You’ve done it at least once. The night before a race you decided to carbo-load by chowing down on a monstrous bowl of pasta, only to wake up feeling bloated, lethargic and generally gross as you toed the start line.

Ask any Regular Joe what carbo-loading is, and many will say it’s downing a mountain of spaghetti the night before an event. That explains all the porta-potties at every race, says Spartan Pro Team member Matt Novakovich. People eat three times as much as they normally would, he says. Then the body doesn’t know what to do with it all, so it . . . “expels” it.

Good carbo-loading before a race is as important as a good strength and conditioning program. But the right way to carbo-load isn’t to eat a ton before your event. In fact, good carbo-loading means not changing your eating habits much at all.

Carbohydrates are an athlete’s primary source of energy. So any endurance event that lasts more than an hour requires a diet with plenty of carbohydrates, says Carol Lapin, a registered dietitian and exercise specialist who, at 57, crushed a Tough Mudder in Houston last October.

Carbohydrates are stored in your muscles and liver as glycogen, like a bank account for energy, says Lapin. During a workout or a race, those glycogen stores get depleted. If those stores hit empty, she says, your energy crashes, also popularly known as “hitting the wall” or “bonking.” So you want those stores full before a race.

But don’t think that means you can down tons of pasta and then be fueled on astronomical carb levels. Your glycogen stores are finite; you can only store so much before those stores are full, and then, as Novakovich noted, the body “expels” the rest. A huge increase in carbs isn’t the way to go. Instead, the secret lies in good tapering.

“You can only compete at your best if you train at your best,” says Nancy Clark, a sports nutritionist and author of the bestselling “Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook.” Her clients have included Olympic athletes, marathoners and members of the Boston Red Sox and Boston Celtics. “And you can only train at your best if you’re properly fueled.”

As you’re training in the weeks and months before an event, you should incorporate plenty of carbohydrates into your diet to fuel those hours of running, pull-ups and, yes, burpees. The week before the event, you begin tapering back your exercise to make sure you are at full strength come race day. Whether you begin tapering a few days before the event or a week before depends on how demanding the event is and how hard you have been training.

As you taper your workouts, your body is no longer burning up glycogen at the same rate it was when you were exercising at maximum intensity. So, if during that period of tapering you continue to eat the same carbohydrate-rich diet you had during training, your glycogen stores will continue to steadily fill up until race day.

But Clark warns that the kind of carbs you eat matters. Don’t think you can eat cheesy lasagna, pepperoni pizza and pasta swimming in alfredo sauce and not feel heavy come race day. And, she says, don’t change what foods you eat in the days leading up to an event as you want to avoid stomach problems. “Part of your training is to train your intestinal tract,” she says.

Clark says you can make small adjustments to your meals to increase your carbohydrate intake. For breakfast, she says, have oatmeal and eggs instead of just eggs. At dinner, have larger portions of sweet potato and rice and less chicken. Lapin says good sources of carbohydrates include whole grains, fruits, starchy vegetables, legumes such as dried beans and peas, and low-fat dairy products.

Most nutrition experts recommend athletes limit or avoid refined carbohydrates such as sugary soda and candy bars. But don’t tell that to Novakovich. He’s been known to down a few sodas the night before an event. He says he’s a fan of simple sugars that your body can easily turn into energy. During one event, he says, he downed several energy drinks, a couple of Cokes and some Snickers bars. “The sugar content would make people cringe,” he says.

You won’t catch him eating and drinking like that on a regular basis. He says he’s generally a very clean eater. But on race day he sees it as performance fuel. “Sugar is bad for the human body when the human body is at rest,” Novakovich says. “But if your engine is firing like you’re in the middle of a Formula One race, it will be eating up that fuel.”

He’s right about making some people cringe. While they say refined sugar might have some energy benefits, Clark and Lapin both say it has far too many drawbacks for them to endorse. They say the fuel you put into your body might as well also give you some nutritional benefits. And soda has been known to upset some racers’ stomachs. But, they say, what a person can tolerate also depends on the individual.

“I think [fueling on soda and candy] is not uncommon. It’s not politically correct for somebody to admit,” says Clark. “But you don’t have to have a perfect diet. You have to have a good diet.”


Carol Lapin is the incoming chair for an organization called SCAN (Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition), the largest practice group in the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. On their website you can find sports nutrition fact sheets. http://www.scandpg.org/sports-nutrition/sports-nutrition-fact-sheets/

The U.S. Olympic Team website is also a good source of information and fact sheets, including athlete eating guidelines. http://www.teamusa.org/About-the-USOC/Athlete-Development/Sport-Performance/Nutrition/Resources-and-Fact-Sheets

(Originally written for Mud & Obstacle.)